Monday, October 24, 2016

Losing control: the faltering power of the United States

Max Weber, writing during the outset of the interregnum between the world wars, defined the state as "a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory" (from his "Politics as a Vocation," 1919). Necessarily, states are only states if there is a territory to speak of, sufficient in size to require such a monopolization. And in that regard, politics—for Weber—is nothing more than the contest within a state to influence the sharing or distribution of that authority to use force. This point of view, it can be fairly argued, reflects reality from a developmental standpoint. States are now exactly what Weber said they are; really, they have been such—in most cases—for a long, long time.

But significantly, they must be such to allow for the idea of international relations, the political activity that occurs between states. Absent the above monopoly on force and correspondingly necessary territory, states cannot enter into meaningful negotiations with each other, cannot enact meaningful agreements or treaties of any sort for which the state—as an independent polity—can be held accountable. Under the auspices of the previous feudal system that dominated Europe, feudal obligations were far more significant and a change in control—by virtue of a new monarch with different feudal obligations—meant that old agreements and treaties were subject to change or replacement, as a matter of course. And even then, such things could not supersede the feudal obligations of the aristocracy, which could extend beyond the borders that defined a monarch's reach.

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 effectively ended the feudal system from an international standpoint, by defining international boundaries of sovereign states. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 confirmed this new world order, not only because it created the League of Nations, but because it mandated reparations from Germany as a state, regardless of any changes to Germany's government or leadership, to other states as states. Contrast this to the Treaty of Paris in 1814, wherein the Sixth Coalition, after defeating Napoleon, restored the Bourbon monarchy to the throne of France: the Coalition liberated France, it did not conquer it, for the benefit of its rightful sovereign. The modern view of international affairs, as reflected in Versailles, is now the standard, wherein the sovereignty of the state trumps the supposed or assumed sovereignty of any individual. Thus, the state owns the actions of any of its citizens/members who occupy official positions, no matter what.

The Great White Fleet of 1907: the US begins it's rise to the top
It is such a rubric that allows for the existence of the United Nations (however flawed), that permits meaningful negotiations between states that can be extended into the future, regardless of leadership changes. And it is such a rubric that—in the years after WWII—allowed the United States to rise up as a superpower without expanding control via actual force of arms. The implied might of the United States was a serious bargaining chip, no doubt, but no less significant were the economic opportunities that existed, both for the United States and those other states who decided to align themselves with the United States (the expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence in the same period, in contrast, reflected an actual application of force, more often than not, and the economic benefits were always an illusion at best).

Note that in all of this, there is an inferred nationalism at play; citizens of sovereign states necessarily have to buy in to their citizenship and—in order to advance the interests of a state relative to others—need to want their state to succeed as a state, which means seeing their individual interests meshing with the interests of the state to some degree. With regard to the United States, such nationalism was also fueled by the recognition of the Soviet Union as the primary opponent (and vice versa, to be sure), effectively super-charging that nationalism to the point of seeking theoretical victory over the Soviets, a victory which came for all intents and purposes in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Almost twenty five years ago, on December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union officially dissolved itself, after having lost a good chunk of its satellite nations to revolution and secession in the years prior. In the moment, the United States was unquestionably the most powerful state on the planet, both internationally and internally. Militarily, no other state could challenge the supremacy of the United States, particularly on the sea and in the air. And this state of affairs was only strengthened by the existence of NATO. Economically, the United States had experienced a slight reversal of fortunes in the 1970's, but that was over; huge economic growth was on the horizon for the United States and its allies around the globe.

Fast forward to today and look at the world, at the United States' place in it. The U.S. is no longer the economic superpower that it once was. Its manufacturing base has shrunk, it's consumer economy teeters year and year out, as the country and its individual citizens accumulate debt year after year after year. This keeps the U.S. near the top of the GDP list, to be sure, yet it is no longer at the top (using a PPP standard). And the U.S. is hardly the master of innovation that it once was.

In terms of military strength, the United States is certainly no longer the lone superpower. China's military has always been larger than that of the US, but now it is gaining rapidly on the technological front. China has even adopted an aggressive program to build its own aircraft carriers. For decades now, US carrier groups have been essentially the sovereigns of the seas and air. Just one could effectively wage a small war against most any country on the planet. But as countries like Russia and China continue to expand their missile programs, the carrier group is becoming less and less effective.

More importantly, however, the United States has shown a reluctance on the international stage to check aggression that is not directly threatening to the United States (though may be and has been to its allies). And those regions of unrest (like the Middle East) where the U.S. has always been the outside force that exerted the most influence are now being influenced by Russian policy just as much, if not moreso, as by U.S. policy. Whether or not the United States is more respected on the international stage is inconsequential; it has less influence.

One might allow that all of this is simply the way of things, that nations rise and fall, that no one can be on top forever. And that is very true. Still, it's of little use in the moment, if one also allows that the point of government is to protect its citizens and to help them flourish. So the issue becomes a different one: how did it happen?

In the simplest of terms, it happened because the US population became steadily jaded. Too much success ultimately breads boredom, after all. The United States, having emerged from the Cold War as the Big Winner (in fact, a much bigger winner than it ever needed to be) topped out pretty damn quick. Nationalism died a quick death in large chunks of the population, who woke as if from a dream and decided that national affiliations were meaningless, that the United States government's job was not to enrich and protect its citizens, but to do the same for all the peoples of the world (a distinctly different thing than protecting the governments of allied nations, which it had done since before WWI).

Apparent impending cataclysms like Climate Change only accelerated the drop-off of nationalism. And this world view found like-minded brethren in Western Europe (whose own path to this point was much different and began much earlier). Moreover, it was and is a world view that is encouraged and applauded by the world's strongmen, from Putin to Jong-Un to warlords in Somalia.

Thus, many citizens looked inwards for problems (not necessarily a bad thing) and found plenty of them, to be sure. One can fairly claim that a minor revolution of rights has occurred in the United States because of this transposition, as things like same-sex marriage and the failed War on Drugs have come front and center and, I think, been substantially righted. That said, these problems are far too often portrayed as on the same level as those of every where else, which is patently ridiculous. That is to say, the level and amount of of discrimination faced by a member of a marginalized group in the United States is in no way comparable to what members of marginalized groups face in many other countries around the world (including the Middle East, Russia, China, and most of Africa).

Regardless, the point is that a good number of citizens in the United States see themselves as citizens of the world first, of the United States second (if at all). And this number includes the liberal intelligentsia as a matter of course, for this mindset is a mark of honor to them; it is the right way to see things, in their view. Those who still imagine that the United States is exceptional are deluded, to say the least, in their minds. For such people, nationalism is not only outdated, it's also dangerous. It is in their minds, as much as anything else, the principle cause of both World Wars and most other twentieth century conflicts.

What this means for the United States going forward is, to be blunt, simple decline: militarily, economically, and politically (geopolitically, too). Previous empires have faced similar things, particularly the British Empire (whose apogee was the time before WWI), the Roman Empire (it's tough to pick a date here for when the downward spiral began), and the Chinese Empire (starting around the time of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842). One gets to the top and there's truly nowhere to go but down. As trite as this is, it fairly characterizes the history of empires (and make no mistake, the United States is an empire, if a reluctant one).

Am I suggesting the United States is about to collapse? Of course not. The totality of American wealth and power isn't going to dissipate for a long, long time. But again, its power in every sense of the word is decreasing, not increasing.

The current election cycle features Donald Trump, who is running on the jingoistic platform of "make America great again," versus Hillary Clinton, who is now an old guard style of politician who—despite her lip service to liberal and progressive social issues—is functionally a Wall Street-backed Neocon. Both promise a "tough" foreign policy, one that would protect and strengthen American interests around the globe.

It is, I think, rather pointless to explore the specifics of Trump's position, both because it lacks specifics and because it is based on a "strongman" approach to foreign affairs, which is simply unworkable with the United States' system of government. As to Clinton, she served four years as Secretary of State and spent eight years as the first spouse, where she clearly had an influence on issues (as her husband would clearly have influence if she ascends to the White House). What was really accomplished in these periods? The United States continued the path it was already on—the erosion of its power from an international perspective—and it was, at the end of her time as Secretary of State, neither safer nor more powerful.  A Presidency under her means more of the same.

I'm not trying to dissuade people from voting for Clinton (or for Trump, really). I am simply pointing out that neither candidate (nor any of the third party candidates) represents a solution to the decline of American power. While it's true that nationalism is a necessary component for the rise and maintenance of an empire, the nationalism evinced by Trump—largely based on xenophobia and ignorance—is the nationalism of the fear-biter, not the nationalism of the leader of the pack. And while Clinton's point of view is conditioned by this later kind of nationalism (owing to the ideological basis of Clinton's world-view), it is undone by her simultaneous kowtowing to her progressive and liberal base, wherein the needs of the world as a whole trump the needs of the United States as a matter of course.

The die is cast. All that matters now is time.

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